SHAKESPEARE, WHAT NEED I FEAR OF THEE?

I’m the first to admit it and you might not think it when you hear more drone on about the joys of watching football over a pint, shouting at the screen and nibbling through a packet of bacon-fries. Yet nevertheless, one should never judge upon glances and appearances alone because yes it is true, despite such ‘vulgarity’, this Gortlee local lad is an admitted fan of the works of one William Shakespeare.

By Jonathan Foley

When you mention the name of William Shakespeare, it almost always guarantees and pair of rolling eyeballs or despursions of being, not just a reader, but something of a high-falutin’ snobby one. His name will generate horrific flashbacks to dreaded school memories and maybe also give rise to a statement akin to “Staysh the Juck harping on about y’on Shakespeare!” 

Of course I can understand why such unfavourable school-days memories could trigger such a negative emotion. I’m the very same when I hear words like algebra, chemistry and pythagoras theorem mentioned even now. Truth be told, I still have that annual bad dream where I’m walking in to do my Leaving Cert Maths exam and not one bit prepared!

And to a certain degree, I get how synonymously linked the works of Shakespeare have become with affluently-spoken thespians and actors who spend their time poncing about on the stages of London’s West End. After that though, I have to draw the line, and give the man from Stratford-Upon-Avon his due for giving us so many things other than just mere stageplays. 

Now I could never claim to comprehend every single word – or the implication – to every piece of dialogue that come from any of those plays he penned. Very few people can really, but that’s beside the point. What I can do is learn about how poetic and creative the English language can truly be and for how such dramas  can make us think, see and feel things about ourselves and the world. 

First and foremost, the most mind-blowing aspect about Shakespeare has to be his intelligence. On a personal level, not very many of us could ever claim to be absolute geniuses at being the one person at a party who could tell jokes so well, that there’s not a dry seat left in the house; or be just as able tell a tale of woe and heartbreak that would have everyone and anyone reaching for the hankies. 

Stories about revenge, fear, lust and loathing that could chill the bones of anyone who’d dare listen; ones that didn’t hold back on controversial topics like a ‘most sainted king’ being murdered in cold blood as early as the first act or stories that had witchcraft ceremonies being performed during the time period when burnings at the stake rituals were part and parcel of the judiciary system.

Considering he lived through the span of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, an era long before a fast-paced printing press and well, clickbait, too of course, Shakespeare had a great understanding of the modern era in which he lived and the history which came before it. 

Essentially, this gave him inspiration and ideas that would sneak their way into his plays. 

Take Hamlet for example. Not only is it’s plot line uncannily similar to that of The Lion King, but it also carries important underlying religious issues; ones that echo the time period of its writing.

Outside the walls of where he’d write away with his feather-pen going ninety, Europe was witnessing the spread of the Protestant Reformation. 

A time when millions of god-fearing people’s questioned if their faith was the right one or if they would be ‘doomed for a certain term’ when they reached purgatory. 

This is paralleled by Hamlet’s decision to not seize upon an opportunity to kill his uncle Claudius purely because he cannot bring himself to take the life of a man while his praying. His troubled conscience is summed up of course with the phrase “to be or not be.” A quote that has lasted well.

With that in mind, Hamlet makes us question other things about ourselves. The story shows us that yes we might all secretly like the idea of revenge, but at what cost?

It also allows to delve further into the understanding of human nature. In this case, we are initially made to feel disgust for Gertrude, Hamlet’s mother, who married her brother in law almost immediately after the death of her husband. Quite the soap opera scandal!

Yet as the play progresses, we start to see that, despite this, she isn’t really hurting anyone or doing anything wrong or immoral; even if Hamlet’s whiney soliloquies disagree.

Another of Shakespeare’s plays is my personal favourite and that’s Macbeth. The story of the noble Scottish soldier who gives into the temptation to kill his own king, so that he can take the throne for himself.  

And even when he does so, as early as Act Two, we learn about the paranoia, guilt and murderous rampage it sets him off on. His dealings with witchcraft and sorcery all encouraging his vaulting ambition. 

Yet despite his psychotic tendencies, we learn more about him and maybe even sympathize with him. The hauntings of a deceased child and a stricken wife suggest that there is much to a perceived good versus evil clashing.

The famous ‘tomorrow, tomorrow, tomorrow’ shows his melancholic emotions towards the play’s ends. And even as a battles with his enemies is impending, this softly spoken soliloquy can break the hearts if you read it closely and empathize with it.

In a nutshell, we see how distressed and lonely his life has become since he became king. It’s changed him for this worst, so much so, that he loses everything and sees life itself as pointless; “a tale told by an idiot … signifying nothing.”

I could go on, but I hope you’ll take my word that there is so much more to gain from Shakespeare than the often difficult language. Once that’s broken down, his themes, his poetry and his character creations will teach so many more things about history, ourselves and the world we love in.

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